Flags for Organizations

Artist: Art & Language
installation | flags and photostats | 1978

The work Flags for Organizations consists of four flags and four posters. The flags are in four middling decorative colors – yellow, blue, green and orange – and they all carry the same emblem in black. The colors do not readily evoke any classical or grand political passions (the blue is not the blue of British conservatism, the green is not the green of the Levellers or of Islam). They are harmless brightbut-not-too-bright colors of organizations or corporations. Their common emblem is in fact the logo for the “People for Rockefeller” campaign of 1968. Here we will say no more then than the obvious; it is modern, unsubtle, brutal and tacky. Each of the four posters carries a series of axioms, which serve to establish the characters of a fictional organization. It may well be that the four fictional organizations over whom the flags fly are, like the colors themselves, somehow corporatist (and ultimately vacuous) in their various ways. The viewer, however, is not rendered “blind” to the work if they disagree with this derogation and believe that there is virtue in one or all of them. If the viewer accedes to the proposition that they are all equally vacuous, they can entertain the idea of someone identifying with one or all of these fictional entities hypothetically or imaginatively. If they see virtue in one of them they will presumably identify (somehow) with the relevant organization in accordance with the counterfactual conditional. “If there were such an organization whose principles were like this, I’d identify with it,” and similarly mutatis mutandis for the ones with which they didn’t identify. Or they might say: “If there were organizations with these principles, then I’d see certain merits in all of them”. Simply to assert: “I agree with these principles,” might be (would be) a misreading – or an incomplete reading – of the work since it fails to account for the fact that these are the axiomatic principles for admittedly fictional organizations for which (real) flags fly. The relevant possible world starts outside the axioms themselves. The organization which flies the blue flag (it could fly any of the other three colors) owes its political and organizational beliefs to the “humane”, “rational” and “responsible” but highly corporate conservatisms of what is called the “left” of the British Conservative party and which broadly coincides with the economic and social theory of European Christian “democracy”. This is a conservative ideology which seeks only moderately and meekly (but scientifically) to regulate the predations of corporate capitalism, preferring to live in the illusions of bourgeois consensus. The organization that flies the green flag (it too could fly any of the other three colors) is also founded on atomistic individualism. It is attached to the political and moral theories of John Rawls, a liberal theorist much occupied with questions of fairness. Basing his theory of justice on the view that the principle there of is to be grounded in or derived from reason itself, his influence in bourgeois politics is undeniable. Of course, the justice and rationality of constructed individuals who conform to a philosophical fiction that they themselves are rational and normally self-interested. They do not exist in reality. Merely deducing the necessity of equality of opportunity does little to stay the hand of a barbarian who is already within the gates. Like the blue-flagged organization, the green one is resolutely bourgeois. It is immune to a sense of social and political contradiction and is uninspired by the thoughts of the self-transformation. The organization flying the yellow flag (it could fly any of the other three colors) is of the left. Some aspects of its analyses are undoubtedly realistic. Its political tendency, however, is to put the structural cart before the horse – and to overestimate the power of ideological critiques to inaugurate a desired social transformation. Its other fault is to underestimate the critical and reflective powers of the dominated. It seeks to foster resistance to the dream work of capitalism, believing that such resistance will provide an answer to the question of how we might change the social process from reproduction to transformation. The organization flying the orange flag (it could fly any of the other three colors) is also of the left. It is of a statist and authoritarian nature and its type was much reviled by the New Left in the West and, more riskily, criticized and exposed in samizdat activity in the East. It fundamentally equates socialism with sate-party control of the means of production, distribution and exchange – plus planning. Indeed, its obsession with planning reaches a high level of absurdity and oppressiveness. It plans for fictions as other organizations philosophize for (and with) fictions, monetarize for fictions or seek to discover their political virtue in fictions. All sets of axioms will have their contemporary adherents. All will introduce one form or another of a perceived criticism of capital today. It can be cogently argued however, that with the triumph of global capital and corporatism, all of them (or all but one of them) are critically toothless as they stand. But the viewer faces an ontological problem. What are they supposed to be looking at? What is redundant here? To the extent that the sets of axioms are of little present power, they might be thought of as texts to join the flags which fly over them as allegories of art; redundant political symbols. But the organizations of which they are supposed to be indices do not exist. We quantify them only in a possible world – a fiction in which the actual flags and the actual texts are used, believed, discussed and possibly changed. In light of this, it would be inviting to try to develop a social theory of art in which all its middle-sized physical manifestations might be regarded as the inscrutable and redundant identifying cyphers of endlessly developing political organizations and institutions.


The 10th Shanghai Biennale - Social Factory | 2014.11.23 - 2015.03.31 | Shanghai Contemporary Art Museum(Shanghai, China)